Tuesday, May 8, 2007
The First Two Velvet Underground Records-part 3: Heroin
Leaving behind all shock value and taboo of the title, “Heroin” is a very infamous song. It has been regarded as one of the best Rock n’ Roll songs ever written by some and frivolous garbage by others. Basically, two guitar chords alternate with a droning viola and some primitive, Bo Diddley inspired out of time drums filling out the track. There is a gradual build up of the music and tension until a release of noisy improvisation. The repetition of the two chord song is destroyed by this departure because the guitars start playing really fast, sloppy lead and the viola turns from a drone to a screeching wail. This interaction is possible through the live instruments and the build up and release adds an immediacy that could not be replicated by separate studio recordings. By the time of the crescendo, the tempo is very fast. The aesthetic of speed supports the immediacy of the live performance as well. The droning and belching of the electric viola do not fit the aesthetic of catchy pop music. It encompasses the backdrop of the melody and remains stubborn and not catchy for the whole track. The live interplay creates competition between the droning electric viola and the biting two chords of the clean guitar, but the separate tones do not clash or overpower one another. Instead, the instruments spar and create some very interesting sonic connections. This relationship makes the music sound like a complete statement because there is nothing that has been left out, and every note, whether it’s in key, strummed properly or not, is necessary to the overall picture.
The drumming on “Heroin” is the best example of favoring mistakes rather than vying for perfection. The three other instruments were “plugged directly into the board,” (Hamelman, 79). Since Maureen Tucker (the drummer) could not hear the output of the instruments and could not see Lou Reed’s lips as he sang, “throughout the original track, Tucker’s drums [were] out of synch with the other instruments. She [battered] her two tom-toms at a tempo either behind or ahead of the guitars and vocals… at one point she stopped thumping altogether,” (Hamelman, 79). The funniest part of the recording was that for Tucker “They didn’t have their amps up loud in the studio, so of course I couldn’t hear anything… And when we got to the part where you speed up... it just became this mountain of drum noise in front of me. I couldn’t hear shit… So I stopped, and being a little wacky, they just kept going, and that’s the one we took,” (Heylin, “Velvets to the Voidoids” 23). This incident exemplifies the recording style of the first Velvet Underground record. On first listening to “Heroin”, it could be inferred that the drumming inequalities could have been done on purpose, for the sake of art. It could also be conjectured that the drummer could have been completely inept and possessed no skills of timing at all. In fact, neither of these myths is true. Since the recording was live and the choices were made to keep the take with the most glaring mistake on it, i.e. the entire drumming track, the song represents the Velvets desire to take the music as it came.